Monday, April 22, 2013

How our Brain Interprets Media Imagery

Without getting too scientific, there are biological reasons that we respond to messages about beauty.  

There are three primary sections of the brain we're going to focus on.
Forebrain: the most developed part of the brain. It's logical, and thinks critically.  It remembers and works out problems.
Middle brain: this brain interprets thoughts and produces emotion.  It is illogical.  It can't reason.  It responds to external and internal stimuli (like seeing an image or thinking a thought.)
Brain stem: the least developed part of the brain.  It's primitive, concerned mainly with keeping your DNA on this earth by keeping you alive (chances to eat, being aware of danger) and reproducing (chances for potential mates.)

Thinking is learned.  Did you know that? We learn how to think and interpret what we think.  Our thoughts have patterns. Critical thinking is taught so we learn to question if our thoughts are valid.  We can learn to have positive, constructive thoughts rather than negative, destructive thoughts.  We are pretty good at manipulating the forebrain.  But the middle brain is a little more elusive. The words we think are concrete.  The feelings we feel are more abstract. They are harder to recognize and regulate.  And very difficult to manipulate with logic. 

So here's what happens.  A woman sees a picture of a beautiful woman- or a picture of a beautiful woman receiving attention from a man.  Her primitive brain recognizes it a something sexual and desirable.  It says "Hey, midbrain, we should be like that so we can keep our DNA on this earth." Midbrain passes along the message to the forebrain.  Forebrain is logical.  It says, "Mmm, we don't look quite like that woman.  Since all we get from this imagery is that she's hot (we know nothing about her morals, sense of humor, intelligence) I don't think we can be quite like her."  Midbrain is a little childish and gets upset when forebrain says this. It reacts with emotions.  "Why aren't we like this? Why can't we be? It's not fair!  We don't deserve a mate!" Sometimes forebrain hears these rants and tries to calm midbrain down with soothing thoughts, "It's okay, she's photoshopped, no one looks like that in real life, we're desirable and worthy of a mate just the way we are."

Many times, we're distracted though, and don't realize that midbrain is having a meltdown while we're watching our favorite TV show or reading a magazine.  And midbrain doesn't really understand what photoshop is.  Brain stem really doesn't understand.  There was never a biological situation before this time where it was necessary to distinguish a real image from a false image.  When we see a human being, our primitive brain can't tell it's not real.  Read: even when we logically understand this is an impossible standard of beauty with which to compare ourselves, our less developed brain areas do not.

Some women struggle because they know that logically, it's impossible to look like a photoshopped, make up wearing, posed, well lit image of a woman, but they don't know it emotionally.  They are confused because they think they can outsmart their brain's natural processes.

What can be done then?  Are we all just victims in an increasingly oppressive beauty society?
No!  There are some things we can do.

  1. Limit media exposure.  Just say no to exposing yourself to unrealistic images and conceptions of women.  In our society, it's impossible to escape advertisement.  But a lot of what we see we choose to see in film, magazines, TV and other media.
  2. Listen to your midbrain.  Become aware of when you feel sad about how you are/look.  Address those feelings.  Allow yourself to feel that way.  Understand why you feel that way to stop feeling that way in the future. (E.G. Please, please, pleeease never watch the Victoria's Secret fashion show.)
  3. Think and say positive affirmations.  When you notice yourself thinking, "Wow, I should really lose some weight," or "I need some new wrinkle cream," or whatever...stop.  Pause and consciously send a message to your subconscious   Say, "I am beautiful and worthwhile the way I am.  I am enough.  I am valuable.  I am not a victim of society's standards." Etcetera. 
  4. Be real.  Live in the moment.  Be connected.  Spend time with real people, helping, serving, interacting.  It will help you keep a proper perspective and remember what's really important.
  5. Help other people struggling with the same issues.  We all have times of strength and times of weakness.  Be a beacon to others when you can, and allow yourself to be lifted by others when you are feeling weak.


  1. This is why I don't look at exercise/health plans on pinterest. The images show like a 10-pack-abbed girl in scanty panties or something and that is just not my goal! Healthy in my mind does not look like that.

    1. Soo true! "Thinspiration" media is really harmful. It's just beauty glorification wrapped in guilt masquerading as health.